December 1, 2007
My daughter and I finally finished our reading of Treasure Island. Neither of us enjoyed it, we were counting the pages; it wasn’t a “labor of love,” it was a labor. Then I gave her a choice of All Creatures Great and Small (by an English vet, James Herriot) or Dracula, the classic novel by Bram Stoker. She chose Dracula. The prose style of Dracula is good — too difficult for my daughter to read by herself, but perfect for a child to read with an adult. Dracula displays a wide knowledge of folklore and the occult; Bram Stoker studied folklore for many years before writing the novel. The setting is Transylvania, in the Carpathian mountains of western Romania; this area is known for its abundance of folk beliefs. Stoker probably thought he was writing another Gothic novel, but today Dracula is regarded as the first horror novel. So far, however, I haven’t come across anything gory or horrible, just a stormy night, howling wolves, etc.
Around 1950, Banfield was a student in Leo Strauss’s class at Chicago. One day, Banfield noticed that Strauss was nervous and uneasy. Strauss was a chain smoker, but the chain had been broken, and Strauss was out of sorts. The classroom had a “No Smoking” sign, and Strauss didn’t want to break the rules. Finally, Banfield got out of his seat, and took down the sign. Strauss lit a cigarette, and peace was restored.
This story shows the Straussian respect for moral absolutes, for written law, for a bookish moral code. This story shows how brittle the Straussian ethic is — it can be overturned by just taking down a sign! I challenge Strauss’s disciples to interpret this story in a way that’s favorable to Strauss.
Our book group is discussing Huck Finn, so I’m reading some commentaries on it. One commentary, “Huck the Thief,”1 compares Huck’s morality with Tom Sawyer’s morality. Tom tries to follow the book, whereas Huck does what seems right. The author says, “Huck expresses a moral system based not on absolute principles, but on character and situation. This system stands in opposition to the more dogmatic and rule-based morality of Tom.” Does this remind you of Banfield and Strauss?
The author of “Huck the Thief” argues that Huck matures during his river journey; the author speaks of, “the intellectual, moral, and social strides taken by Huck during his journey down the river.” I’m reminded of Hamlet, who seems to become wiser during the course of the play.2
Perhaps Huck practices thievery and lying because he represents a pre-moral stage of society. One might compare Huck to the wily Odysseus, the Greek trickster, who represents a pre-moral, pre-Socrates stage of society. Psychology teaches that each of us, in our growth from infancy, recapitulates the stages of human evolution, including the pre-moral stage. Perhaps in Huck’s own development, the pre-moral stage hasn’t yet been outgrown.
“But what about the agonies of conscience that Huck suffers in the novel? Huck is moral, perhaps hyper-moral, certainly not pre-moral.” These agonies of conscience may be the author’s, rather than Huck’s; these agonies seem out of place in an untamed boy like Huck, as I argued elsewhere.
Twain is so light-hearted and humorous that we’re apt to take him lightly. Twain had vast ambitions and vast talents. He tried to compete with Shakespeare, and he studied Shakespeare assiduously, hoping to learn everything that Shakespeare had to teach. As a result of his close study of Shakespeare, Twain’s mind was saturated with Shakespeare’s works, and his own works contain countless allusions to Shakespeare.
Several critical studies have discussed Shakespeare’s influence on Twain; one of these studies is called “Samuel Clemens and the Ghost of Shakespeare.”3 The author says that even when Twain retired from writing, it was a retirement à la Shakespeare: “When Clemens wrote in a 1905 letter to his daughter Clara that he had broken his bow and burned his arrows, ‘His expression recalls Prospero’s — and supposedly Shakespeare’s — valedictory speech in The Tempest.’ For Clemens, Shakespeare was not merely a figure to idolize or to parody but someone to emulate.”4
Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, perhaps every gifted young writer at that time emulated Shakespeare. Shakespeare was more important then, since German literature was just beginning to be appreciated, and Russian literature was scarcely known outside Russia. Goethe emulated Shakespeare, as did G. B. Shaw, Whitman, and perhaps Melville and Hawthorne. “Whitman ‘considered himself Shakespeare’s rival in the New World and was even jealous of his fame’.... Moby Dick is openly and pervasively influenced by Shakespeare.’”5 Twain wasn’t content to achieve anything less than Shakespeare achieved; if his work didn’t match up, then he was uneasy, then he tried to explain why it didn’t match up.
Even minor episodes in Huck Finn are Shakespeare-influenced. “In the opening chapter of the novel, Huck hears ‘twelve licks’ of the clock, determines ‘something was a stirring,’ and then hears Tom’s identifying signal. In the opening scene of Hamlet, after Barnardo says the clock has ‘struck twelve,’ Francisco reports ‘Not a mouse stirring,’ but at that point Horatio and Marcellus arrive and give the identifying passwords.”
More important scenes of Huck Finn are also Shakespeare-influenced. “Colonel Sherburn’s contemptuous dismissal of the mob in Chapter 22 (“droop your tails and go home”) re-enacts Coriolanus’s defiance of the Roman populace (“You common cry of curs... I banish you!”).
Another memorable scene in Huck Finn was influenced by Hamlet. “The passage generally regarded as Clemens’ greatest accomplishment, Huck’s meditation in Chapter 31, consists in large part of paraphrases of Claudius’ soliloquy.” This seems to be a discovery by the author of this essay, James Hirsh. Many of Hirsh’s Shakespeare-Twain connections seem tenuous, forced, but this one seems solid. How did it escape so many readers? What a thrill for Hirsh to discover it! Hirsh was the perfect candidate to make this discovery since he’s an expert on Shakespeare soliloquies, and wrote a book on the subject. Let’s match Huck’s soliloquy against Claudius’:
“The final words of Huck’s meditation,” Hirsh points out, “are even spoken aloud, like a soliloquy by a Shakespearean character.”
Considering how Twain used Shakespeare, one might say, “Shakespeare was an original, Twain wasn’t.” In a recent issue of Phlit, however, we noted how Shakespeare was influenced by Ovid. Perhaps every writer is “in debt,” just as every writer has a father.
Hirsh draws on the work of two critics who have written about literary influence: Walter Jackson Bate, author of The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, and Harold Bloom, author of The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Bloom understands the importance of The Hermetic Tradition, and is sympathetic to that tradition. Bloom understands that Newton and Descartes overthrew the Hermetic worldview, or at least forced it underground, and this changed Western man’s view of the world, and changed Western literature. According to Bloom, “post-Cartesian writers are insulated from the influence of pre-Cartesian writers.”6
An essay on Shakespeare and Twain can’t avoid the subject of Shakespeare’s identity, a subject in which Twain had a keen interest. In his essay “Is Shakespeare Dead?” Twain argued that the Stratford man couldn’t possibly have written Shakespeare’s works. The author of this essay, James Hirsh, is a Stratfordian who thinks that Twain’s position is nonsense; Hirsh tries to explain Twain’s position as a manifestation of Twain’s Shakespeare-envy: “daunted by a precursor... a later writer might find solace in depriving the precursor of the glory of achievement.” According to Hirsh, the Stratford man was more troubling to Twain than any other candidate since he rose from lowly beginnings, and was therefore someone that a river boy like Twain should be able to match. On the contrary, a person like Bacon or Oxford could be dismissed by saying, “he had a great education, I didn’t, so I can’t be blamed for falling short of his achievement.”
Ah, these Stratfordians! Their perversity knows no bounds, their ingenuity never ceases to amaze.
In an earlier issue, I discussed conscience in Huck Finn, and wrote, “in Twain’s world, virtue is a matter of the heart, not the head.” This topic is explored in a fine essay called “A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience,” by Henry Nash Smith. I found this essay in a book called Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a good book, a good collection of essays. I think it’s better than the Norton Critical Edition of Huck Finn, which is too concerned with politics and race, and too concerned with recent criticism, instead of providing us with the best criticism, recent or not.
Smith argues that Huck and Jim seek freedom, but can’t achieve it. They can only achieve a semblance of freedom with the help of implausible plot twists. “Jim’s freedom has been brought about by such an implausible device that we do not believe in it. Who can imagine the scene in which Miss Watson decides to liberate him?” As for Huck’s freedom, he can “light out for the Territory” but it’s hard to imagine him succeeding there.
The problem of achieving freedom was one of the problems that Twain grappled with while he wrote Huck Finn. Another problem was how to drift downstream, and comment on the ante-bellum South, while transporting Jim up the Ohio to freedom. Such problems prompted Twain to abandon his manuscript for several years. Finally, Twain skirted these problems by introducing the King and the Duke, and reducing the role of Huck and Jim for several chapters.
Twain’s satire of Southern society is largely a satire of Southern religion.
Smith says that Huck grows during the novel. He discusses Chapter 15, in which Huck apologizes to Jim: “Huck’s humble apology is striking evidence of growth in moral insight. It leads naturally to the next chapter in which Mark Twain causes Huck to face up for the first time to the fact that he is helping a slave to escape.” But Huck’s reflections in Chapter 16 don’t reach the depth of his reflections in Chapter 31. In both moral crises, Huck wrestles with the ethics of liberating a slave. “The later passage is much more intense and richer in implication.”
Smith’s argument is much like the argument we made in an earlier issue with respect to Macbeth, but while Macbeth ignores his feelings, Huck follows his feelings. “Huck’s conscience is simply the attitudes he has taken over from his environment. What is still sound in him is an impulse from the deepest level of his personality.” Macbeth closes his ears to “the protest of his deepest self” but Huck follows his deepest self, therefore Macbeth is ruined but Huck isn’t.
Another essay in Twentieth Century Interpretations is called “So Noble... and So Beautiful a Book.” The essay says that Twain was influenced by a writer named W. E. H. Lecky, author of History of European Morals. In his copy of Lecky’s book, Twain made a marginal note, calling it a noble and beautiful book. Lecky was a contemporary of Twain. In his day, Lecky was popular; no less a writer than Darwin discussed Lecky’s arguments. As one reads this essay, one realizes that Twain was a serious thinker, as well as a very lively and humorous writer.
Lecky divides moral philosophy into two kinds, the stoic school that believes we have a natural sense of right and wrong, and the epicurean school that believes our sense of right and wrong comes from our society. In the epicurean or utilitarian school, Lecky places Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke; he says that this school believes, “A desire to obtain happiness and to avoid pain is the only possible motive to action.” Twain agreed with this view; in his copy of Darwin, Twain made a note, ascribing moral decisions to “selfishness... not charity nor generosity.”
Twain embodied Lecky’s two types of morality in Miss Watson and Widow Douglas. Miss Watson represents the epicurean/utilitarian/selfish school, and tries to induce Huck to behave with promises of heaven and threats of hell. On the other hand, Widow Douglas tells Huck that the reward for prayer is “spiritual gifts”; she tells Huck to “help other people” and doesn’t mention reward or punishment.
Huck’s conscience tells him that he shouldn’t steal a slave, he shouldn’t liberate a slave. Twain regards this as an example of a perverse moral principle that is instilled by society: “That strange thing, the conscience — that unerring monitor — can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it.” So much for an innate moral sense.
Twain was troubled by a severe conscience. Doubtless he agreed with Lecky when Lecky said, “It is more than doubtful whether conscience... is not the cause of more pain than pleasure. Its reproaches are more felt than its approval.” From an epicurean standpoint, Lecky argued, we should get rid of conscience altogether. Twain wrote a story in which the protagonist does just that: “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut.” In this story, Twain depicts a man who is visited by his conscience, which takes the form of a deformed dwarf. The conscience-dwarf tells him, “‘It is my business — and my joy — to make you repent of everything you do.’ Gleefully following Lecky’s suggestion, the narrator kills the troublesome dwarf and begins a life of crime.”
A severe conscience also figures prominently in Huck Finn: Huck says, “it don’t make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person’s conscience ain’t got no sense, and just goes for him anyway.”
Perhaps Twain’s morality is neither the stoic nor the epicurean. Rather, it’s a morality that looks to individual situations rather than general principles, a morality that listens to feelings, to the deepest self, to the unconscious, rather than to conscience or reflection.
Twain took a dim view of Christianity, referring to it as “an odious religion.” Twain didn’t work his way to Eastern religion, or to the Hermetic religion, so one might say that Twain had no religion. Does this explain his pessimism, his dark view of the human condition? Should he be grouped with other 19th-century pessimists like Schopenhauer and Leopardi, pessimists who had broken with the old religion, and not yet found a new one?
Last night, our book group discussed Huck Finn. The discussion was so animated that I almost regretted ending the group. Two new people were attracted to the meeting by Huck Finn, and they had a detailed knowledge of the novel. People were intrigued by the Shakespeare-Twain connection. On the other hand, they disputed my view that Twain admires the aristocrat, rather like Nietzsche did. They said that Col. Sherburn murders Boggs in cold blood, and they said that Col. Grangerford has a concept of honor that Twain opposes. They didn’t change my view, though, that Twain is partial to these aristocrats. Twain’s descriptions of them don’t contain a hint of ridicule. True, Twain may disapprove of their religious and moral beliefs, but one can disapprove of a society’s beliefs and still admire particular individuals within that society.
After the discussion, one member of the group wrote to me,
Twain’s description of Col. Grangerford is indeed very favorable. Was this description influenced by Shakespeare? Hamlet speaks thus of his father:
He was a man; take him for all in all;
There are many such passages in Shakespeare, and it’s possible that they influenced Twain.
Twain’s admiration for the aristocracy, and contempt for the rabble reminds one not only of Nietzsche, but also of Conrad. In an earlier issue, I discussed Conrad’s Nigger of the “Narcissus”, and wrote
At the meeting of our group, my critics asked me, “who does Twain want us to become, want us to be like?” I responded, the idea of becoming is inconsistent with the idea of the aristocrat because one doesn’t become an aristocrat, one is born an aristocrat. One of the most positive characters in the book is Huck; perhaps Twain wants us to become like Huck. It may be doubted, however, whether Huck is real. Twain probably never met a Huck in his years on the river, but he probably did meet a Grangerford and a Sherburn, a King and a Duke, a Miss Watson and a Jim, etc. Huck is imaginary, partly based on a boy Twain knew, partly based on Twain himself.
I thoroughly enjoyed Walter Blair’s essay, “The French Revolution and Huckleberry Finn.”7 It was written in that golden time before race and gender came to dominate discussion of the humanities. It throws light on Twain and his reading, it throws light on Huck Finn, and it also throws light on Carlyle and Dickens. Twain was interested in English and French history, and he had a special interest in The French Revolution, which he called “my subject.” Twain’s favorite book was Carlyle’s history of The French Revolution; Twain read that book over and over again, he was reading it on his deathbed. Twain also read and re-read Dickens’ novel about The French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. One might say that Twain didn’t learn by reading, he learned by re-reading; he read Carlyle and Dickens until his mind was saturated with them, until he could re-create their scenes in his own fiction. Blair shows how, in big ways and small, Twain was influenced by Carlyle and Dickens, just as we saw above that Twain was influenced by Shakespeare.
One comes away from Blair’s essay thinking that Carlyle’s book is a great literary work, though it’s forgotten today. Carlyle’s book is neither scholarly nor popular; it contains neither painstaking research nor juicy anecdotes. But Carlyle’s book appeals to a man-of-letters like Twain, it appeals to those who are fond of literature, it appeals to the educated layman.
Carlyle describes The Mob and The Leader — two topics that play prominent roles in Huck Finn. Carlyle scorns The Mob and admires The Leader. Like Carlyle, Twain was wary of popular rule; he said that his reading led him to “hate all shades & forms of republican government... with an intensified hatred.” What form of government did Twain like best? “Republican government, with a sharply restricted suffrage, is just as good as a Constitutional monarchy with a virtuous & powerful aristocracy, but with an unrestricted suffrage it ought to perish.”
Col. Sherburn’s contempt for the crowd gives us a good idea of Twain’s own views; “Several points which Sherburn makes,” Blair tells us, “were made by Twain as his own in a chapter discarded from Life on the Mississippi.” But while Twain took a dim view of The People, he didn’t admire the Ancien Régime, as Nietzsche did, and he didn’t condemn The French Revolution in toto, as Nietzsche did. Twain said he wasn’t a moderate Revolutionist (a Girondin), but rather a radical (a Sans-culotte).
Carlyle often expresses pity for the unfortunate — even for people like Robespierre, of whom many would say, “he deserved it.” Likewise, Twain expresses pity for the King and Duke: “I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals.”
Twain preferred fact to fiction. He said, “I like history, biography, travels, curious facts and strange happenings, and science. And I detest novels, poetry and theology.” While writing his novels, Twain borrowed from history and also from other fiction writers. His reading about imposters inspired his descriptions of the King and Duke. The episode about the Wilks is, according to Blair, a study of guile and gullibility.
Most of the characters in Huck Finn are based on people Twain knew: Pap, Huck, Tom, Jim, the duke and the dauphin, Boggs and Col. Sherburn. Twain’s fiction has a ring of truth because it’s based on fact; as Twain put it,
This comment strengthens an argument that I made elsewhere — namely, the argument that literature, especially modern literature, draws on the author’s own experience.
Twentieth Century Interpretations begins with an essay by Bernard DeVoto. DeVoto’s essay has little to offer besides bland generalizations about the river and the nation, but it does draw one interesting parallel: a parallel between Huck Finn and Moby Dick. DeVoto says, “Moby Dick opposes metaphysics to the objective reality of Huckleberry Finn. [Moby Dick] is a study in demonology.” DeVoto seems to regard Huck Finn as more realistic than Moby Dick. But Moby Dick is realistic, too; it depicts an invisible reality, a psychic reality. Moby Dick is more profound than Huck Finn because it explores the mysterious depths, it explores the shadowy, semi-conscious drives that play a key role in human nature. Huck Finn is more superficial, it describes ethical dilemmas rather than semi-conscious drives. Melville was receptive to the occult, as Shakespeare was, and has much to say about it, whereas Twain mocks folk superstitions, just as Ben Jonson mocks occult/alchemical practices. If one divided writers according to their attitude toward the occult, Shakespeare and Melville would be For, while Jonson and Twain would be Against.
I agree with DeVoto that Melville’s prose is flawed: “Though Melville could write great prose, his book frequently escapes into a passionately swooning rhetoric.” In my view, Twain wrote better prose than Melville.
Though I’m not a fan of T. S. Eliot, I enjoyed his essay on Huck Finn. Eliot and Lionel Trilling are known as champions of Huck Finn; while others find fault with various aspects of the novel, especially the final chapters on the Phelps farm, Eliot and Trilling have unstinting praise for the novel, and even excuse the final chapters.
In general, I enjoy Freudian literary criticism, but a Freudian study of conscience in Twain’s work seemed to throw little light on the author or his work.8 The essay deals with an important subject, and its arguments are well-substantiated, but it didn’t strike a chord with me. Maybe I was tired of Twain and Huck, maybe I was tuckered out.9
|1.|| by Eric Carl Link, Midwest Quarterly 41, no. 4 (summer 2000) back|
|2.|| G. Wilson Knight argues that Hamlet becomes wiser during the play; Hamlet gradually overcomes his hyper-thoughtfulness and achieves greater spontaneity, greater wholeness. Another critic who argues that Hamlet becomes wiser is Eissler, who analyzes Hamlet’s soliloquies in his Discourse on Hamlet and Hamlet: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry. back|
|3.|| James Hirsh, Studies in the Novel 24, no. 3 (fall 1992): 251-72 back|
|4.|| Ibid, quoting John Tuckey back|
|5.|| Ibid, quoting Robert Falk back|
|6.|| I’m not quoting Bloom, I’m quoting Hirsh’s account of Bloom’s theory. Perhaps Bloom was influenced by Marjorie Nicolson, who discussed the influence of Newton and others on literature. back|
|7.|| Modern Philology, Vol. 55, No. 1. (Aug., 1957), pp. 21-35 back|
|8.|| “Mark Twain’s Deformed Conscience,” American Imago, Vol. 63, No. 4, 463-478 back|
|9.||If my interest in Twain and Huck flares up again, I’d like to read some of the psychological studies mentioned in the Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations (p. 4, footnote 1). back|